Teaching in Public, Google Reader, and Self-Directed Learning

[ NB: this post was originally written for :: repurposed :: and is duplicated here because of clear overlapping concerns and dissemination for a different audience... ]

This is Bolutife (Bolu) Olorunda.

Bolu was a major contributor to my senior seminar for majors in English—Rhetorics, Places, and Publics, ENG 444—at Ball State University last semester. He's also an integral contributor to :: repurposed ::.

But Bolu is a Construction Management major. He doesn't really take any courses in English anymore. And he wasn't registered for my course at all.

Bolu's involvement in ENG 444 is absolutely fascinating to me.

I'm going to spend some time explaining why that is, and how opening our classrooms to broader publics through emerging media platforms can provide tremendous opportunities for self-directed, lifelong learning...


The start of fall term brought the usual documentation from the registrar's office—class lists, classroom locations, final exam schedules and the rest. As a faculty fellow with BSU's Emerging Media Initiative, I naively assumed that I'd be working in computer classrooms.

Naturally, I didn't actually check to see where my classrooms were located and what kinds of technologies were available in those rooms until a week before the semester started.

Of course, ENG 444 was not in a computer classroom. I needed it to be. So I requested a change.

Wish granted.

The new classroom location was in the Applied Technology building, in an open computer lab, in a room at least 15 degrees warmer than a room should be, regardless of changing weather conditions outside.

The new room was an unusually apt assignment for a course exploring rhetorics of space, place, and the built environment. We confronted issues of placement, location, and the malleability of the learning environment from day one. Early in the semester, when the weather was stunningly gorgeous, we often met outside, just to escape the heat of Applied Technology 208.

But perhaps the most curious affordance of the new classroom was the fact that it wasn't really a classroom at all. It's a computer lab, staffed full-time by a student employee. Every Thursday evening, when we met from 5 to 6:15, the student employee was Bolu...


A junior looking to graduate in 2011, Bolu is in many respects similar to thousands of other BSU students—he's bright, conscientious, responsible, and intellectually curious. Bolu's family is originally from Ibadan, Nigeria. His mother chose to pursue graduate studies at BSU (where she earned both an MA and PhD), and he moved to Muncie with his family when he was 14.

Bolu graduated from Muncie Central High School and enrolled at BSU. His father is an architect, and Bolu originally pursued architecture as his major. Though he is now studying Construction Management, he retains an interest in both architecture and engineering. He's started to think about his graduate school options in areas that may allow him to combine these interests.

Not surprisingly, the serendipity of Bolu's placement in an on-campus job in Applied Technology 208 each week, his interests in architecture and engineering, and the nature and tenor of our ongoing course on Rhetorics, Places, and Publics proved an important combination for his eventual involvement in 444.


For several class periods, our group of English majors (and contributors to :: repurposed ::) thought and talked through the politics and rhetorics of Muncie's “Village,” a shopping area just a couple of blocks away from campus. We used The Village to discuss Kevin Lynch's paths, edges, nodes, districts, and landmarks. We discussed how different groups cognitively mapped the area. We thought through what it might mean to redesign The Village, thinking about Setha Low's work on the social construction and the social production of public space.

Most of these discussions were student-led. I often provided the framework and the theoretical prompting from our readings, but the contributors to :: repurposed :: were always the contributors to our reimaginings of The Village. They did the work. And they mostly had fun with it, I think.

During a particularly lively full-group discussion one Thursday evening, while the others deliberated amongst themselves, I sat near the front of AT 208, across the desk from where Bolu patiently waited for the classroom to become a computer lab again. But this evening, about 5 or 6 weeks into the semester, Bolu asked, “is this an English class?”

“Yes,” I said. “The students are working on cognitive maps of The Village, thinking through one of our readings.”

“This isn't like any English class I've ever seen,” Bolu said.

“Oh? Why do you say that?”

“Well, the things you're talking about, the way you teach the course, the way they're discussing things. It's different,” Bolu said.

After class, I spent some more time talking to Bolu about the course. He was genuinely interested in the subject matter—in rhetoric—and in learning more about the work we were doing.

The next day, I added him to the Blackboard site for our course, so that he could access supplemental readings from Emig, Spinuzzi, Brummett, Porter et al, Diehl et al, Low, Soja, Sack, and Massey, among others. He started reading, on his own. He listened during class and took notes.

I asked Bolu to sign up for Google Reader, and had him subscribe to the Bundle that we used in conjunction with the course.

One Thursday evening after class, he told me that ENG 444 was the highlight of his day.

The week that we had this blog up and running, the week of October 19th, I formally introduced Bolu to the class, and I informed everyone that he'd be an important contributor to the blog.

And he was. And he still is.


At the end of finals week, Bolu came by my office so that I could ask him a little more about his involvement in the course. It was frankly thrilling for me to meet someone so interested in what we were doing, so invested in a course he wasn't even registered for, so intellectually curious.

I simply asked Bolu what interested him in 444, what made him participate in the ways that he did.

He told me that the course seemed informal and discussion-based—that there was room for participation from all who felt inclined to do so. As I mentioned above, the mere discussion of space, place, the built environment, and the use and theory of rhetoric was likewise interesting to him.

He told me again that he didn't think it was an English class.

For Bolu, the stereotypical English class involved students writing papers and reading things. But he felt like the 444 students were more than students. That they were doing things beyond simply writing papers. And they were interacting in class, in Reader, and on :: repurposed ::.

Bolu told me that he felt like a part of the class on those Thursday nights. He knew the others by name. He paid attention and took notes. He read many of the same things as those enrolled, and he followed along especially in our sharing of links and ideas on Google Reader.

Once :: repurposed :: was up and running, Bolu read every post. He told me that he was constantly refreshing the site, looking for new contributions.

Bolu is truly a self-directed learner. He's planning on graduate school after graduation, and eventually hopes to own his own business.

He doesn't want to work 9 to 5.

Knowing what I know about Bolu, I don't think that's going to be a problem.


I have more to say about how our group blog and emerging media tools like Google Reader can open up our classrooms to self-directed learners and to broader publics. The notion of making our classrooms more open, and of involving the public in our formative course work through tools like Reader has tremendous potential for immersive learning, in my opinion. But that's for another post...


Anonymous said...

當我微笑時,世界和我一起微笑;當我快樂時,世界和我一起活躍。 ..................................................

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